If you build it, they will behave: the great behaviour myth of teaching and learning

'That lesson was bare differentiated.'
Because I don't get out much, I have a favourite false (or possibly just invalid) syllogism, and it's from Yes Minister, the satirical political sit-com precursor to The Thick of It that now seems like a Golden Age of propriety and civic integrity. It goes like this:

P1: We must do something
P2: This is something
C: Therefore we must do this.

I mention this because there seems to be many government ministers and policy formers who apparently see this as the last word in logic. These are interesting times in Education; the Curriculum is being shaken down, sorry, up; Ofsted are being retrained to hunt different prey (presumably using the bloody undergarments of teachers who don't value Geography as scent-markers). It's all a bit up in the air again, and education has the atmosphere of the Museum of Baghdad after the liberation of Iraq. No one really knows what's going on, and schools are feeling sore about the new baccalaureate because everyone looks like they do nothing but teach kids how to fail exams. In many ways it's a great time to be a teacher.

And in other ways it's business as usual. The Education Committee of the House of Commons has just reported back the following conclusions:

1. The curriculum should be designed to meet the needs of all children

'The report by the cross-party committee concluded: "Ministers should bear in mind that if the future curriculum is to have a beneficial effect on standards of behaviour in the classroom, it will need to meet the needs of all pupils and contain a mix of academic and vocational subjects, while being differentiated and enjoyable"'

Says who? Says Graham Stuart, MP and committee chairman. You would hope that, as Mr Stuart has brought the tablets down from the mountain that he would have some kind of solid experience in classrooms to back up these claims. A brief search of his web page reveals...well, a career in publishing, which is nice, and presumably where he learned all that classroom management stuff he's so good at. Give me strength.

'Er, sums and Homer and that, innit.'
What other profession would have to endure such uninformed micro-management? It's a topic I've visited before, but I'm happy to drop in again: can you imagine the neurosurgeon just about to perform a cerebrospinal fluid leak repair, when some enthusiastic Sir Humphrey chips in that he should be wearing opera glasses and using a judge's gavel if he wants to minimise post-operative infection? (On second thoughts, I shouldn't give them any ideas.)

So why does teaching have to routinely endure the armchair wisdom of so many hapless, uninformed desk-jockeys? Because everyone has been to school, I suppose, therefore everyone has an opinion on it, in much the same way that because I've got a mobile phone I have an expert opinion on quadrature amplitude modulation.(I do incidentally; apparently they're taking all our jobs and living twenty five to a flat. I mean I'm not racist, but they're not like us are they?)

There's a recurrent theme here: education is an open field; anyone can have a crack at it. I suspect that this is part of the problem with the Free School idea, but only time will tell. What's obvious is that education wobbles under the weight of the legion values and judgements of battalions of nosey Norahs who have never set foot in a classroom unless they were learning Latin. The teaching 'profession' can barely call itself such any more; the juice has been squeezed from our lemons until these days we're not much more than vending machines for the latest fashionable ideology or dubious international success story.

2. Good teaching causes good behaviour

'Behaviour is one of the four key areas to be examined by schools inspectors Ofsted under changes announced.
Ofsted's last annual report found that in schools where teaching was good or outstanding, behaviour was also almost always good or outstanding.'

Philosophy lovers everywhere can have this one for free: devotees of empirical science will be all over it like hungry dogs. Can you spot the (presumably deliberate) mistake in this reasoning?

P1: Some schools have outstanding or good teaching.
P2: Many of these schools have good or outstanding behaviour.
C: Therefore good teaching leads to good behaviour.

'One can do it like the man'dem, man'dem..'
Does it? Does it really? As Hume would say, this is an invalid deductive argument. It's barely even an inductive one. Why not just as easily conclude that good behaviour leads to good teaching? Because that's exactly what I have observed in my teaching career. If the class won't behave for you, then you can plan a lesson to the millisecond, involve tumbling dwarves and the Dalai Lama, plan a different activity for every child, have rewards, have them waving traffic light cards and pumping them with SEAL, but you ain't got a thing if they won't behave for you. Good behaviour is prior to good learning. If they don't want to learn, if the class is even remotely challenging, then you can plan your little heart out, but you might as well try to teach a colony of seals on the beaches of Shapinsay.

That's not to say that good lesson planning doesn't help the situation, or that interesting activities and well-structured tasks that involve variety and challenge aren't part of your behaviour management arsenal- in fact they should be- but the suggestion that what teachers really need to be focusing on is high quality teaching activities isn't just wrong, it's destructive.

Why? Because on the TES Behaviour Forum I chair, I deal with complaints every bloody day from new teachers who are broken men and women, having been fed this snake oil as the remedy to their classroom woes. When they find it doesn't work with many kids, they do one thing- they blame themselves.

I learned this the hard way, like many teachers; I went into the profession brimming with enthusiasm and ingenuity, but found that to my new classes, I may as well have been talking in Swahili, as they listened in Armenian, because they couldn't give a monkeys. It was only when I realised that the focus needed to be the behaviour first and de Bono's Learning Hats second (and believe me, it's a very, very distant second) that I made headway. Then, when I had tamed them to a satisfactory level, I could restore creativity and subtlety to the lesson.

These things are never completely separate of course; but the emphasis in the early days needs to be getting the classes under control first. As the control deepens, so too can challenge and intricacy. Putting them the other way around does nothing but break the hearts of those new to the profession.

This myth is cultured in other political Petri dishes:

'Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said: "An appropriate, relevant and broad curriculum that keeps pupils engaged is absolutely fundamental to good behaviour.'

Again, there is some truth in this, but misplacing the emphasis can lead to teacher training disaster:  'absolutely fundamental' means, to me, 'cannot exist without it'. This is demonstrably untrue: I know scores of experienced teachers who could sit a class down with an open book and tell them to work through 100 maths questions, and not hear a peep for fifty minutes. Not exactly what you might be looking for in a class necessarily, but it proves the point.

I want lessons to be interesting, challenging, fun and inspirational- who doesn't? I would love it if they were all like that. But just because something is desirable doesn't mean that it is a necessary component, or even that it is possible. Put simply, much of the work that needs to be done in order to achieve a good education is boring. (Just saying that makes me feel like Ofsted will burst down from the ceiling on static climbing ropes like Harry Tuttle in Brazil.) But it's true; it's not all interesting; in fact I'll go further- a lot of learning is a bit dull, and takes effort and resilience to complete. That's not an excuse for all lessons to be boring, but a admission that education sometimes requires repetition, rote learning and routine. To be frank, that shouldn't even be a controversial statement, unless you think that the suggestion that 'building up your quadriceps will require exercise' is controversial.

Somewhere along the line we picked up the assumption that all learning can be fun. Oh really? A big shout going out right now to every single one of the children I have taught who studied and worked hard even when my lessons weren't based on quiz shows or involved human pyramids or playing at Rock Stars. Nothing hard ever happens without hard work. If we demand that all lessons engage then we are making an electric rod bristling with broken glass for our backs. What we demand is that all pupils try, that they behave. Then it's up to us to make it as engaging as possible. But I won't apologise for some lessons that bore even me. that's the nature of learning sometimes. To accept that lessons must all be engaging simply shifts blame to the teacher when children misbehave. 'It's your fault- the lesson didn't engage,' the argument goes, which is about as logical as the proposition that people get burgled because their homes aren't secure enough, or look too affluent.

Free Schools led to unusual sponsors.
The Shadow Education Secretary, Andy Burnham doesn't want to be left out, either. The curriculum revamp is 'narrow and restrictive' he says, and could lead to children behaving badly. Oh aye, they'll all be out on the streets with burning torches and pitchforks when they have to do Geography and French, won't they? (Presumably Citizenship and BTECs do nothing but soothe the savage breast. Oh that's right. They don't.) Andy Burnham is well placed to talk about the effects of the curriculum on education, having spent a few years as a researcher for Tessa Jowell before entering politics, so he knows exactly how these things work. And next week he'll be redesigning the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, because he saw Horizon once.

While I have my sopabox out, there are a few observations I'd like to make about the new education Bill:

1.Pornography and mobile phones added to the list of items schools can search for.

Fabulous. The power we've all been waiting for. Actually, if my biggest worry at school was the possession of a few mouldy Jazz mags, my life would be a lot easier. And frankly I'd be more surprised to not find pornography on the average adolescent's mobile phone, but there you go, it's nice to know we can.

2. Schools told they can search for anything they have banned 

Brilliant. So to that list I've just mentioned you can add, 'anything else you can think of.' Actually this is a rather good idea. I vote for 'existentialist literature' and 'unhappy thoughts.'

'Nah mate, it's the fan belt.'
3.Appeals panels are no longer allowed to tell schools to reinstate a pupil who has been expelled, but they can ask them to reconsider their decision.

And we'll say 'F*ck off, thanks.'


  1. You're right. I think I do actually believe that even though I thought my lesson plan/activities were really interesting, they can't have been, because the kids played up. I will readjust my thinking and maybe have more confidence that way. You do talk sense!

  2. As an AST working with Teach First and GTP Teachers in rather challenging schools I focus on classroom management for the entirety of the first term. Second term, planning to support progression and classroom management. Finally in the third term I focus on the multitude of misconceptions and down right fallacy you’ve taught your student because you’ve not had at least five years of teaching your curriculum and seeing the multitude of mistakes that children are capable of. TEACHING IS A RIDUCLOUSLY HARD PROFFESSION THAT SHOULD BE DEALT WITH BY TEACHERS WHO HAVE SOME BLOODY IDEA WHAT SPENDING 25 HOURS A WEEK WITH 30 PAIRS OF EYES STAIRING AT YOU IS ACTUALLY LIKE. Not quite sure what my point is here but I did enjoy the article Tom.

  3. Excellent post, I'm really glad that you have written such a coherent response to this incoherent nonsense. Now I'm waiting for someone on high to take all this to its logical conclusion and order that if children behave badly in class we should still keep them behind, but only so we can properly apologise to them for not planning a good enough lesson.

    Just for the record, though, how does this theory account for poor behaviour at break time or in the corridors between lessons? Is it a manifestation of post-traumatic shock, brought on by prior boring lessons?

  4. Excellent. The voice of reason in a swamp of muddled verbiage.

  5. Confusion reigns, and the politically correct have well and truly taken over the asylum.

    I have been told quite explicitly by my headteacher NOT to plan exciting activities, because they could possibly wind up one pupil who ought, in fact, to be taught in some sort of specialist unit but is, sadly, inflicted on a class of primary pupils every day.

  6. Thanks everyone. I am fairly convinced that the reason anyone would ever support the theory that challenging, well planned lessons are axiomatic to good behaviour is because they were essentially a bit stupid.

    Or that they had only ever taught in a school with very little disruptive behaviour.

    Or that they'd never taught at all.

    Just a theory.

  7. Oooh, how I love that theory.

    How I will enjoy reminding myself of it the next time my headteacher spouts the next piece of wisdom she has dredged up from somewhere and which has absolutely no academic or research-based support.

    I will smile to myself and remind myself that she is, indeed, essentially a bit stupid :)

  8. Thanks. A very interesting and thought-provoking post. It's only through bitter experience that you realise that the success of the lesson isn't always down to the creativity you've shown, the resources you've lovingly prepared and the care you've taken to check all the equipment's working, but to whether you can keep Ms. x and Ms. y from fighting and Mr a and Mr b from disappearing out of the door halfway through and coming back glassy-eyed and dribbling. (And of course, that's just the English Dept meetings.)

    Plus, I think I may have briefly wet myself upon seeing the Cameron/Jessie J mash-up caption. Thanks!

  9. I've had a perfect example of this topic as a trainee teacher in FE.

    I've had one class of students (16-18) who had one or two students in it who caused major issues. Which the others followed.
    Once one of those two were kicked out, the rest have now stopped messing around and are actually learning! And are lovely kids.

    All my lessons were interesting, not one activity longer than 15 minutes (cos of course, 16 yr olds can't concentrate for longer than 15 minutes without a toilet break!) and had online activities, group activities, pair work etc.

    "When they find it doesn't work with many kids, they do one thing- they blame themselves"
    Hear hear! And I'll tell you why they blame themselves. Because of the stupid emphasis on "reflection".

    If you don't write a 2,500 word essay on what went wrong with your lesson and ensure its backed up using Harvard style references to the latest fad theorists, then you are not a good teacher!

    I can see the point of reflecting on situations - its what a thinking and intelligent normal human being does! But, the way its being pushed means that trainee teachers fall into the very easy trap of navel gazing and that then ends up in a cycle of negative thinking.

    Very dangerous!

  10. Great article - thank you for this much needed dose of common sense. If the requirement for teachers is to make all lessons 'engaging' then unfortunately the end result will be pupils leaving education totally unprepared for the real world - where most of the time monumental amounts of inner strength are required to cope with the boredom of a 9-5 job (unless you're one of the few who land a job you love). I'm not sure whether this is down to the law of unintended consequences, or just political correctness gone insane, but I feel we must (indirectly, through a bit of academically rigourous rote learning!)teach children that in the real world life is not always 'engaging'. If we don't prepare them for this fact, we do them a disservice.

  11. Engaging my ass (that's an outburst, not a description). I had a mixture of inspiring and tranquillising teachers, but that was OK because I didn't expect them to tell jokes and juggle for me. I had the rather funny impression that they were there to teach me.

    The engagement factor doesn't apply. The more we encourage children to expect entertainment, the more disappointed they'll be and the more discontented they'll feel. And the more we expect teachers to entertain, the more they'll feel like they're failures. Sometimes I wish that Progressive education had one neck, and I had my hands round it...

  12. Excellent article. If feel that we should be more precise about the term ‘engagement’: kids assume ‘engagement’ to mean fun, whereas the most meaningful construction of engagement is ‘challenging’. Fun can be a component of engagement but it’s not a mandatory ingredient – challenge is. A few years ago I took a group of Year 12 students to a University taster day. Amongst the activities planned for the day they were required to attend a taster lecture. After 20 minutes or so it became apparent that they couldn’t hold it together and, eventually, we had to stop the lecture to bring order. When I remonstrated with them afterwards I was given the view that it was ‘boring’, ‘not fun’ etc: this is what we have done, we have given kids a sense of entitlement that if they aren’t being entertained then they can buy out, they don’t have to engage - quite simply because they have misconstrued the meaning of the word. Kids are great at finding modes of avoidance and latch on to buzz words and phrases to justify their behaviour: ‘you aren’t teaching to my learning style’ is another one that I hear. I have never been on a course in my life that didn’t involve sitting and listening, (try some inset lectures from ‘inspirational’ teachers). In the commercial world, in any world, this is the default mode of delivery to a larger audience and yet, what is happening in schools, ill prepares kids for this environment. This pre-occupation with engagement as ‘fun’ as opposed to ‘challenge’ is utterly inimical to kids’ progress.

  13. @ Poglewood

    Cheers. The real world will not bust a nut trying to engage the pupils, so it's an act of disservice to train them into expecting it. Of course, every teacher should have, as a subsidiary aim, the hope that pupils will enjoy and be fascinated by their lessons. But to expect that, as a requirement, is to offer a very odd value system.

    You know what? I like a tidy house. Unfortunately, ironing my shirts is a bit of a drag. Can't be helped, even with music and dancing in my boxer shorts. I guess I'll just have to bloody get on with it, and enjoy the starched fruits of my labours later.

    Education is a bit like that sometimes. I loved English at school; bloody LOVED it. It still didn't help me enjoy reading Tess, or Of Mice and Men. But I'm glad I read them.

  14. Tom your way of writing is very interesting and you are indeed an inspirational teacher

  15. This blog has made my day. I'm an NQT and already sick to the back teeth of the emphasis that is put in this country on entertaining and mollycoddling kids to the point where they won't be able to tie their own shoelaces by the time they leave secondary school. As for preparing them for the real world? Ye right


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